Recently I was interviewed by someone writing for WOW – Women on Writing. This is one of the questions she asked me, and my answer:
Q: The poet Adrienne Rich stated “a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive functions of the imagination.” How is that true or not true in your life?
A: I love Adrienne Rich. She received an award at the National Book Awards dinner the year I was there. It took everything I had to not reach out and touch her as she walked by me within arm’s length. I wouldn’t dare argue with Rich, but I might qualify…
When I was growing up and dreaming of becoming a writer, I was delighted to discover the trope of the aberrant artist. She was eccentric and free of desire for material things. She was considered socially unconscionable until she became famous, at which time she was thought of as deliciously scandalous. She dressed mostly in black. If she had children… Well, I never knew anything about a writer’s children. Surely she would never have them. Or perhaps, if she did have them, they died of neglect, and the writer became even more hallowed for her sorrow.
Above all, a writer needed Experience. As a young person I didn’t know what that Experience might be, only that it had a capital E. And of course, a writer suffered, as all writers must, tortured by the bleak vision of life as it really is, of which the rest of us live comfortably ignorant. One day the writer committed suicide because, as we all know, for the truly gifted, life was not to be borne. It was her final heroic act, and we read her books even more voraciously to parse her genius and repent deeply of our own shallow happiness.
I did my best to misspend my youth in pursuit of an Experience. But then, without meaning to, I grew up. I joined the ignorant blissful as I filled my home with babies. Occasionally I wore pink. I doubted my longed-for writing career would survive growing up and having babies and wearing pink.
In fact, all those babies were at least indirectly responsible for my writing career. I added it up, and I breastfed for a total of eight years. You can’t do much with a baby attached to your breast, but you can read. I read the very best books, sometimes aloud to my baby, and this refined my palate for good literature. I read children’s books aloud to my children every day. I added up the years I read aloud to my children each night, and they total thirty-four years. Thirty-four years of reading aloud can train your ear for voice. Certainly it revealed to me the subversive nature and subtle artistry of literature for the young. Soon I will have had a child in my home for forty consecutive years, and in those years I have learned that the Experience a writer needs can happen just as easily in the wee hours with a sick child as it can in a walk-up in Greenwich Village.
Becoming a mother taught me that making art is not an act of running away from life, but an act of running to – mostly to wonder and to discovery. There’s nothing like a child to show you how to do that. You can discover this in other ways, of course – some of the best writers never had children. But this was my way. Have children connected me to the world in a way I hadn’t been before, and that connection is one of the most important reasons I write. Yes, sometimes in protest I put graffiti on the wall of the universe. But the universe lets me. The universe believes in freedom of graffiti. “Marvellous.” “Extraordinary.” These are the words more often said by the artist, not “How meaningless it all is.” Being a mom helped me learn that.